Children born to teenage mothers are more likely to be undernourished than children of adult mothers, explained a new study which examined links between teenage pregnancy and child undernutrition in India.
The authors of the study, which was published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health recently, analysed data for 60,097 mother-child pairs and examined the extent to which teenage pregnancy is associated with child undernutrition.
They also explored potential social, biological and programmatic factors linking early pregnancy to child undernutrition.
'Social, biological and programmatic factors link adolescent pregnancy to early childhood undernutrition: a path analysis of India's 2016 National Family and Health Survey', is co-authored by IFPRI's Phuong Hong Nguyen, Samuel Scott, Sumanta Neupane, and Purnima Menon and Lan Mai Tran of FHI360, a non-profit.
India is home to more stunted children than any other country and is one of the ten countries with the largest burden of teenage pregnancy.
Although marriage before 18 years is illegal in India, the 2016 National Family and Health Survey (NFHS)-4 revealed that 27 per cent of girls are married before their 18th birthday and further, 31 per cent of married Indian women give birth by the age of 18.
"Reducing adolescent pregnancy in India can hasten our progress towards achieving the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those related to poverty, health, nutrition, general wellbeing, equity, and education," said Nguyen, also a research fellow with International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
The study found that stunting and underweight prevalence were 10 percentage points higher in children born to adolescent mothers than in children born to adult mothers.
Compared to adult mothers, teenage mothers were shorter, more likely to be underweight and anaemic, less likely to access health services and had poorer complementary feeding practices. They also had lower education, less bargaining power and lived in poorer households with poorer sanitation, Scott said.
"The strongest links between adolescent pregnancy and child stunting were through the mother's education, her socio-economic status, and her weight," said.
Policies and programmes to delay marriage can potentially help break the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition through many routes.
"Unfortunately, in India, early marriage and subsequent pregnancy is often not a deliberate choice, but rather the result of an absence of choices, and of circumstances beyond a girl's control," said Menon, a senior research fellow with IFPRI.
"Continuing schooling, exploring employment opportunities, and delaying marriage and pregnancy are challenges for India's girls that are reinforced through patriarchy and social norms," she said.
"We are very encouraged by the decline in the prevalence of early marriage over the last decade but also puzzled by why it is high in states like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana," she added.
Menon said further investments in appropriate interventions targeting young people, both men and women, can contribute to a further decline in early marriage and early childbearing in India.
A review of interventions to prevent child marriage in low and middle-income countries shows that interventions including unconditional cash transfers, cash transfers conditional on school enrolment or attendance, school vouchers, life-skills curriculum and livelihood training had a positive impact on increasing age at marriage, the study said.